The Emperor’s new clothes

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Journalist Shefalee Vasudev’s Powder Room is a study of the Indian fashion industry. But does it delve deeply enough, asks Sunil Mehra

Illustration: Samia Singh

POWDER ROOM sets out to tell the “untold story of India fashion”. My regret? Three hundred and thirty two pages later the story remains just that: untold.

Much of it has to do with Shefali Vasudev’s self-confessed “fashion virgin” status. Through her stint as editor at Marie Claire, India, she remained an uncomprehending, if well-intentioned, ringside spectator who very evidently mistook the woods for the trees: somebody who has stepped into a long, convoluted fashion narrative, the bare outlines of which she gamely tries to piece together with more enthusiasm than any real information or understanding. Interviews with central dramatis personae in the ‘Indian Fashion Story’ remain wasted opportunities, notable for what she does NOT ask them, for the gullibility with which she receives their wisdom. Why look a gift horse in the mouth? Quite enough that the pearly gates were thrown open, audience granted.

No hard questions are asked about turnovers or annual revenues from bridal/prêt lines. No probing either on HOW clothes are defined and priced as ‘couture’ or ‘prêt’. What are the parameters that determine prêt/couture prices? Who decides? How many designers know the basics about cutting or sizing a garment? Is fashion a hot house phenomenon? Can the zeitgeist that has made megabuck enterprises out of thoughtful design houses like Ritu Kumar, Fabindia, Anokhi in just three decades be explained? How does the turnover from ‘fashion’ compare with the Rs 2 billion plus RTW (ready-to-wear) market in India? Johnny-come-lately retail chain Zara clocked Rs 40 lakh on the night it launched. How do Indian designers intend to deal with this threat?

What we get instead is an awestruck recap of a Bal soliloquy on the lotus motif and rapturous passages on the malleability of mulmul! The rest of the interview is ‘The Recounted Rambles of The Bal Who Does Mul’: disjointed rants about wide-eyed designers who have no design acumen and drunken journos at Bacchanalian jousts in his book-laden Defence Colony den. But what is Bal’s design premise? What has he done to be considered the major talent that he is? What has been his contribution in terms of silhouette, cut, style? Does he repeat himself? If not, what has he invented/re-invented in the past three, five or 10 years? Has he flagged, atrophied?

Important questions go unanswered. Vasudev makes much of Bal’s seminal (?) contribution to the staging and celebrating of homoerotica but that is so irrelevant to any serious discussion of his design oeuvre. It’s on par with discussing Galliano’s sets, Lagerfeld’s sunglass affectation, or Armani’s villas, rather than the clothes they put on the ramp. Yes, Bal is gay. So? In this day and age that’s as sensational a revelation as the one about the Pope being Catholic!

The Tahiliani interview is also a letdown. He holds forth on his ‘New Indian Democracy’ line. Vasudev swallows that subterfuge hook, line, sinker! WHAT new line? WHICH new Democracy for gawds sake? Tahiliani is the King of Bling. The Diva of Drape. That has never changed. Over the past 20 years, the drapey saris, blouses, the fishtail lehengas, the Swarovski sheaths, the jewel accessories have NEVER changed. If anything they are more insistently, assertively there than ever before! Like his business acumen. Vasudev chooses to wax eloquent about the flowers in his studio, his Wharton management degree, how he feeds his staff, writes his own press releases and orchestrates his shoots. Interesting detail but within the covers of a book about Indian fashion rigorous analysis about his design or business philosophy would’ve been better.

Powder Room: The Untold Story Of Indian Fashion
Powder Room: The Untold Story Of Indian Fashion
Shefalee Vasudev
Random House
364 pp; Rs399

Rajesh Pratap is a thoughtful, insightful man. In the past decade and a half, he has opened 10 stores in premium locations. Each of these locations translate into a (conservative) Rs 1 crore plus investment. Yet, his assertion about there being no money in the trade goes unquestioned. Vasudev’s subsequent, masterly mapping of the Sabyasachi design story confirms the suspicion that she is a tad overawed by the Bal-Tahiliani brigade. That imbalance extends itself to the word lengths: Bal gets 10 pages; Sabyasachi gets 21. But here is where Vasudev gets into her stride. Sabyasachi’s unique design philosophy, his ingenious take on the business of fashion, styling, the Indian textile tradition, the studied emphasis on retro chic — all is beautifully explicated.

Salutary evidence of this same understanding and analysis is reflected in Vasudev’s brilliant, unsparing exposé of the aspirational marketing and branding of Fendi, Luis Vuitton, Versace, Swarovski et al in India. It’s an exposé in the tradition of Woodward and Bernstein! Vasudev lays bare the insidious, almost invisible, psychological manipulation of showroom sales staff. At one foreign luxury brand, a sales head’s revelation about the kind of profile they seek while hiring is bone chilling in its calculation: they have to be smart enough to trot out the spiel but slow enough to not be aware of the subtext. Wow!

She sustains her winning streak in the chapter on Ludhiana wives. It’s a superb, never-before journalistic foray into the mores and morals, motivations and mindsets of the Indian nouveau riche. The theatre of Middle Class Upward Mobility she chooses to examine is export revenue-fuelled Ludhiana, where suburban housewives live their Saag and the City dreams! These educated, svelte, soignee women may defy the stereotype of the fat housewife of the Punjab hinterland but little else is changed: they work out assiduously on treadmills to retain college girl shapes and the interest of lusty testosterone-laden spouses steeped in patriarchal tropes; meanwhile, mothers-in-law gift diamond bangles to daughters-in-law who produce male heifers and gold bangles to the unfortunates producing mere female offspring. Emblems of pride in these communities are Fendi bags, Luis Vuitton luggage, Jimmy Choo shoes, Cavalli dresses, Versace jeans, Dior sunglasses, Paloma Picasso perfumes, at least two ayahs per kid (what’d the neighbours say?!), not to mention the obligatory solitaires on ears, throat, nose, wrists. It’s a fascinating study of upwardly mobile, schizophrenic, small-town India.

Vasudev asserts that the next big movement in fashion will come from young designers. Why are they not named or seriously assessed?

Vasudev does make a game attempt to look at the nuts and bolts of the fashion industry in the chapter where she examines the business of the Indian fashion weeks. Sunil Sethi, the garrulous Fashion Week czar, talks at length about the behind-the-scenes tug of war that characterises this event. Vasudev paints with broad brush strokes: how much does a designer invest in a couture show; how much do they pay for a stall; which designers are included (or excluded) and why; how much does it cost to put on a show here or abroad? What’s missing, though, are the details that help put the jigsaw together. What, for instance, are designers’ turnovers? What is the fashion business worth today? What is the annual expenditure on fashion advertising? What is the composite turnover of the ancillary industry of stylists, make-up artists, choreographers, set designers, and lighting/stage professionals? What is the Bombay fashion industry worth, with its bonus of Bollywood business, as opposed to the Delhi Fash Frat? Is there a difference in the cities’ design ethos?

There are other significant, even glaring omissions. Vasudev chooses to interview Exhibition Design luminary Rajiv Sethi when the textile expert Martand Singh might’ve offered more germane observations. The ‘Retail Queen/Textile Pundita’ Ritu Kumar is ignored, not to mention JJ Vallaya, Rina Dhaka, Manish Malhotra, Asha Sarabhai (who sold in her own name at the Issey Miyake showroom in Tokyo) and countless others without whom the narrative of Indian fashion is incomplete. And why no examination of Rohit Khosla story? It’s like writing a book on Christianity without reference to the Book of Genesis!

Finally, the stereotypes: the drugged model in the sleazy hotel room being preyed upon by paan-chewing potbellied starmaker; the male model in the gay whore/ladies toy boy avatar; the disillusioned designer heartbroken at the shallowness of people air kissing you even as they look over your shoulder to say hello to the next important person. These are tired Madhur Bhandarkar stereotypes that someone as smart as Vasudev did not need to perpetuate. As a narrative crutch it works to the detriment of this book.

Vasudev asserts that the next big movement in fashion will come from young designers. Why are they not named or seriously assessed? Again, why does this book sound more like a requiem for Indian textile traditions rather than a celebration of and status report on Indian fashion?

Mehra is Delhi-based author, journalist and filmmaker.

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